With May and June SAT and ACT test dates just around the corner, we thought we’d share some quick, last-minute test-taking tips to incorporate into your study routine! While the focus here is on math-based tests (incl. SAT Subject Tests in Math 1 and 2), these general concepts can easily be applied to multiple-choice tests at large.
Tip 1: Eliminate + Guess
For the ACT or SAT, or multiple-choice test where incorrect answers are not penalized, it is always worth guessing! Even if no answer options can be eliminated, the test taker has nothing to lose by guessing and may get lucky guessing the correct answer. Of course, if any answer options can be eliminated, here’s something to remember.
The probability of guessing the correct answer increases with each option eliminated.
To eliminate options, think about the extremes of the problem set before you, what range the final answer should fall between, or other characteristics the final answer should have. This requires a bit of out-of-the-box thinking that can be improved with deliberate practice.
Some tests do penalize for incorrect answers though.
The SAT Subject Tests, for example, penalize test takers a quarter-point for incorrect answers. Why?
The penalty is meant to statistically offset any blind guessing.
Blindly guessing on five questions that have five answer options will statistically result in one correct answer and four incorrect answers. The point awarded for the single correct answer will be balanced by the four quarter-points subtracted for incorrect answers.
Although this is the most likely option, this is still pure chance, and some days will yield more lucky results! Also, you can change the statistic through elimination.
If you can eliminate at least one of the options for a multiple-choice question, the statistical probability of gaining a point outweighs the probability of losing that quarter-point.
So, it behooves the test taker to guess when at least one answer option has been eliminated.
To help with your process of elimination, look at all of the answer options and work backwards from the choices to the question. This can be extremely helpful for complicated, multi-step problems.
By looking at the answer choices, you may be able to notice patterns, such as answer options set apart by the same multiple, suggesting a step in calculation that may be missed by someone working through the problem in a conventional way.
For example, let’s say a question asks for the diameter of a circle, which requires multi-step algebra and these are the answer choices:
A trained eye will notice that answer choices C and D are twice that of A and B, respectively. This should be a signal that one of the potential steps is to either multiply or divide by two (or know not to do so).
Given the nature of this question, you can pretty safely assume that two of these answer choices (A and B) are actually the radius, rather than the desired diameter of the circle, and can thus be eliminated. This can also aid in making sure you remember to take that final step of multiplying the radius by two to get the diameter.
To gauge for yourself how much guessing benefits your score, we recommend that you note the answers you guessed on while you are taking a practice test. When you are scoring the practice test, you can then easily count up the points you gained by eliminating and guessing.
Tip 2: Know Your Goal + Prioritize Your Time
In general, for standardized tests like the SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests, the questions are roughly arranged from easy to difficult. By knowing your score goal, you can determine how many questions you need to answer correctly, and determine how to pace yourself in order to achieve that score.
It’s important to remember the following about the SAT and ACT: whether the question is an easy one at the beginning of the test, or a difficult one at the end, those two questions are worth the same for you score. There’s no need to rush to answer difficult questions you aren’t as likely to answer correctly. You can pace yourself at the beginning and knock those easy questions you can answer correctly out of the park. Prioritize the easy points first!
And not only don’t rush to get to the difficult ones, but let’s go ahead and just think of those difficult questions as the least important questions. I’ll say that again:
Those difficult questions at the end of section aren’t more important.
They are less.
Everyone take in a deep, relaxing breath thinking about that.
Depending on your score goal and the particular curve of the test, chances are your best strategy while include skipping a couple difficult questions, and only coming back to them once you’re sure you’ve bagged your more obtainable points first.
Tip 3. Beware the “Easy” Answers
Along similar lines, by knowing that the later questions in the section will be harder, you can approach those questions with a skeptic’s eye!
When you start getting to the end of the test, be suspicious of answers that are found too easily. Easy answers like that should prompt you to thoroughly re-read the question to see if you’ve missed a step in your thinking.
And, looking out for the “easy” answer can actually help you eliminate options! For example, a problem near the end of the test reads:
Buttercup donates 30% of her royal income to charity, and then gives 15% of the remaining funds to Fezzik. What percent of her royal income remains?
The “easy answer” would be simple subtraction (100-30-15 = 55%), but don’t trust it!
If it’s at the end of the test and seems to easy to be true, eliminate that option!
Tip 4. Read the Question Carefully
I don’t want to say that the test is trying to trick you.
But, our last tip of not trusting easy answers does highlight that these tests assume students will miss steps by not reading questions and answer choices carefully!
Most of the time, if there’s a way to misread the question, there’s a corresponding incorrect answer choice to reflect that possibility. For instance, if the question details how many apples Peggy collected over the week and asks how many left she needs to collect, there will be an incorrect answer choice of how many total she’s collected.
These incorrect answer choices are red herrings. One good way to avoid them is to locate the actual question of the question, usually the last sentence of the problem. Look for those question indicators: what, how many, which.
Then, when breaking down the question, pay special attention to units, negatives (“not”), and general reversals, such as asking for the LEAST of something. We are often trained to think of the greatest amount of something, which is why this step is so important.
Once you’ve located and deciphered the question, then go back to read peripheral or supporting information.
Tip 5. Use Figures to Guesstimate
Lastly, and here’s a tip that really only applies to math tests, if a figure isn’t captioned with “Note: figure not drawn to scale,” then you can assume that it is drawn to scale and you should take full advantage!
Sometimes the certainty of scale won’t give you a precise answer, but it will often at least allow you to eliminate some of the possible answer choices.
BONUS TIP: Take a Practice Test
Take at least one practice test under test-day conditions. Find a quiet space, use a timer, and take the test in one sitting.
To simulate the foreign space you’ll be sitting in on test day, you might try to find a space separate from your room or usual study space, such as a quiet corner of your school or local library. If you choose to use an empty room in your own home, make sure to ask those you live with to not disturb you during your set test time.
If you’d like a more official practice test setting, at North Avenue, we offer proctored practice tests about once a month.
By simulating the conditions of the test day, you can get a more realistic picture of what your final results may be, and adjust your studying priorities appropriately.
And now, you’re ready! Well, hopefully at least a little more prepared than when you started perusing this article.
Remember to breathe; you got this.